05 Oct 2018

What is disciplinary literacy and why we need it… and why you should come on our course!

What is disciplinary literacy and why we need it… and why you should come on our course!

I am an English teacher.

I also teach some Drama lessons.

There’s an important distinction there, one I am sure many multi-subject colleagues recognise. It means that (generally) I feel my English lessons are more successful than my Drama ones because I can draw upon more knowledge, make more links and give pupils different ways into the learning. My expertise in the discipline helps my delivery.

A similar relationship exists between a teacher and literacy. Your expertise in the subject will enhance your delivery of aspects of literacy, above and beyond any attempts by a so-called ‘literacy expert’. I teach vocabulary in English and Drama in the same way, but it is more successful in English because my depth of knowledge around the key words is so much greater.

This disciplinary approach to literacy was exemplified in recommendation 6 of the EEF’s September release of their ‘Improving Secondary Science’ Guidance Report. It’s worth looking at the sub-strands within recommendation 6 to consider the power of the advice not just for science, but for other subjects too.

6a: Carefully select the vocabulary to teach and focus on the most tricky words

The sheer quantity of vocabulary that pupils need to know can often feel overwhelming – both for students and staff. However, the guidance report helpfully reminds us that ‘less is more: a deep understanding of fewer words is better than understanding lots of words at a surface level’. There is a balance to be struck of course. Sometimes you may need to introduce working definitions of three or four new words during a lesson to help the learning progress. However, there may be one word which is going to be most beneficial to unpick in a bit more detail, spending 5 or 10 minutes delving into it to really help students find a hook for their learning.

When making your word selection you might consider the following:

  • A pre-test to see which words cause students most trouble
  • A department discussion about which words are most crucial
  • Broader, more conceptual vocabulary and not just niche nouns. The guidance report talks about how words like ‘valid’, which may be familiar to pupils, is actually well worth explicit instruction because of its different meaning in a science context
  • You might get it wrong…but selections can change in the future

6b: Show the links between words and their composite parts

‘Teach pupils to segment and manipulate words according to their morphemes (unit parts) so that new words with similar morphemes are more easily recognised and understood.’

Using morphology in such a way is an incredibly powerful tool for demonstrating to students the depth of meaning in a word, as well as giving them a useful strategy for figuring out other unfamiliar words they encounter. Morphology is particularly powerful in science where certain prefixes, roots and suffixes surface time and again. Other subject disciplines might find greater use for different strategies.

6c: Use activities to engage pupils with reading scientific text & help them to comprehend it

Students ‘should have access to quality texts from a range of sources,’ enabling them to see accurate writing from that subject domain. These types of texts (quite rightly) come with associated challenges. This is where subjects can develop consistent approaches to introducing and reading new texts. The guidance report suggests DARTS activities, though again other subject domains may require different approaches depending on their own contexts.

6d: Support pupils to develop their scientific writing skills

Just as with reading, a consistent approach to writing texts is vital. The range of writing we ask students to do is broad: analytical, evaluative, descriptive, explanatory, persuasive. Expecting them to shift between them without a clear structure is understandably going to create problems, so good modelling is essential. Again the guidance report provides a powerful model (from the What Works Clearinghouse) that has real applicability across a range of subject areas.

While an approach to writing like this offers cross-curricular benefits, it will be even more effective when applied to the unique challenges of individual subjects. That way subject experts in History, for example, will be able to make slight tweaks and adjustments for their own contexts. Empowering subject experts in this way is one of the reasons we are offering our Disciplinary Literacy course. We will look at many of the approaches from the guidance report (and more), but crucially give time for subject experts to consider how best to apply the tools for their own setting. This is not a literacy course just for English teachers: rather it is a chance for teachers of any subject to consider how thoughtful consideration of literacy can amplify success in their subject domain.

To book your tickets for this three day course click here.

Schools/MATs who send two or more colleagues will be entitled to a free follow-up planning visit or INSET delivery.

Marcus Jones, Literacy Lead, Huntington Research School